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It's National Novel Writing Month!

By Teresa Schultz-Jones
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #72, 2006.

Write a 50,000 word novel in a month? Over 9,000 people did it last year. Discover how you can do it, too.
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Teresa Schultz-Jones

Do you have a novel in the back of your mind that's just waiting to be written? Have you tried writing, only to be stymied by writer's blocks? Maybe what you need is to try writing with 70,000 other writers!

That's right! November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), during which time you can get the momentum going on your writing project while writing with 70,000 other writers around the world. This event, which is free, has taken place every November since 1999 and has grown by leaps and bounds each year. But what is it and how does one take part?

NaNoWriMo started with a group of 21 friends. They challenged each other to each produce a 50,000-word novel in a month. They also got together on a regular basis, challenged each other with word quotas, races, and more. While most dropped out, six completed the challenge. The following year, a website was created for the participants, who numbered 140, of whom 29 completed the challenge. By 2005, there were over 60,000 participants and over 9,000 winners.

The statistics illustrate that National Novel Writing Month is a successful enterprise, but don't really explain why. That's something that I didn't understand until I was fully immersed in NaNoWriMo 2004.

"Mom, I'm Going to Write a Novel!"

My daughter asked me if it would be all right if she did NaNoWriMo as a homeschool project that year. Several of her friends were. She explained to me that starting at 12:01 AM on November 1, she and her friends were each going to write novels. They had already created accounts for themselves at NaNoWriMo.org and each night planned to update their word counts on the site.

"That's it?" I asked.
"I think so," she said. "I have an idea for a book."

I checked out the site. Creating an account at NaNoWriMo gives you access to the forums, allows you to exchange emails, and provides you with a user page. The user page is fill-in-the-blank. It prompts you for such things as what sort of novel you will be writing, favorite authors, music that you write by, etc.

Always one to encourage my child to write, I agreed. I also decided that I, too, would sign up so that I would better understand what it was about. Besides, if she were busy writing, wouldn't I have some free time to do my own writing?

How NaNoWriMo Works

According to NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty, when you undertake to write a 50,000-word novel in a month you should not plan to produce the Great American Novel. What you do get is an idea of the writing process and some decent writing.

As a NaNoWriMo participant, you will receive a weekly pep talk in the form of an email that has the right words at the right time for you. This is because the typical NaNoWriMo'er experiences the month like this:

Week One. You've got the momentum of starting something new behind you. You figure that you can easily pace yourself at 1670-2000 words a day to stay just ahead of what you'll need to produce 50,000 words in thirty days.

Week Two. This is the week where you are most likely to give up. You are likely to realize problems with your plot, your characters and your lack of time. If you ignore the plot for a bit and just write about the day-to-day life of your characters, you will get through the week.

Week Three. If you've managed thus far, you are starting to make new discoveries about your characters and you'll find that the ideas have probably started flowing again.

Week Four. Wait! There's only a week left? You have so much more to write about, so you write simply to see how it is all going to turn out.

When you are in need of a break or some mutual self-pitying (or bragging) about how your writing is going, you need only look to the message boards, where you will find hundreds of messages written by folks at exactly the same point in their writing as you are (and the occasional person who somehow managed to write all 50,000 words in just a few days). Need encouragement? Need ideas? That's what the forums are for. (Although it should be pointed out that they represent every sort of view and language imaginable.)

NaNoWriMo has grown so large that there are now chapter meetings in every state throughout the month. A glance at the regional forums will show that there are gatherings where folks meet and write. Some of these tend to be more social and others are literally just a group of people sitting at their portable laptops or notebooks writing quietly to themselves.

Hints & Tips

As you write, you'll want to update your NaNoWriMo word count. The word count is not official until near the end of the month, when the official counter becomes available. Until then, you can simply use the word count utility that comes with most word-processors. Your progress is shown by how much of your progress bar on the site is filled in.

Some good utilities are available through NaNoWriMo. The one that I liked best was an Excel spreadsheet that somebody made. When you enter your daily wordcounts into it, it shows you exactly how far along you are with a pie chart and line graphs, and calculates how many words per day you will need to write to meet your goal as well as how many days it will take at your current rate.

This is not a writing program, however. Any help or advice on writing is given by other NaNoWriMo'ers going through the same process. You do not need to share your writing with anyone - your word counts and writing are all done on the honor system.

A Day Late and No Plot... No Problem!

I had no plot in mind when I started my novel. According to the site, this does not matter. The idea is quantity not quality. NaNoWriMo philosophy is to get the words out on paper or into the computer. You can always edit later. While this matches what writing courses say, the idea of not even having a plot was somewhat troublesome. However, it actually turned out to be the reason why I was able to succeed at NaNoWriMo.

When I signed up for NaNoWriMo, it was already November 2 and I was a day behind everyone else. I found www.writerbuddy.com which provided me with six words to incorporate into my store and around which I figured I could create a plot.

Had I started with a story in mind, I might have been overly concerned about keeping to my outline. Instead, having no plot freed me up and I wrote about my character's daily adventures going through WalMart, having tea with neighbors, and cleaning up her great-aunt's home. Somewhere along the way, my character started noticing that things were not as they should be... and thus, a plot was born as both she and I tried to figure out what was going on.

As I got into the writing process, I began to look forward to that time with my computer each day when I would sit down and visit with the characters of my story. My daughter continued to work on her story past November and throughout the next year (and she is still working on it). She even celebrated its birthday by making a cake. It is currently reaching the 300,000-word mark.

By the end of November, I completed my story. To "win" NaNoWriMo, you upload a text version of your story into their official word counter. Your winning status is reflected as follows:

  • Your progress bar says WINNER
  • You are given the opportunity to print a winning certificate
  • You are listed on the pages of winners

As a bonus, a self-publishing company (www.Lulu.com) has offered NaNoWriMo winners for the past two years the opportunity to receive a printed paperback copy of their novels. I haven't yet received my copy, but look forward to seeing my writing in "print."

NaNoWriMo for Students

NaNoWriMo now has a special program for students. Their website is at www.nanowrimo.org/ywp/. If you choose to go through this program, you can set whatever goal is realistic for you and your students.

In 2005, classroom-friendly, moderated forums debuted for students that are aged 12 and under. Separate forums explain how to teach using NaNoWriMo, including a fairly active thread for homeschoolers.

More Facts About NaNoWriMo

NaNoWriMo donates half of its net proceeds to build libraries in rural villages in Laos. In 2005, they were able to donate $122,193. In 2004, their donations provided enough funding to build three libraries.

You can sign up for the NaNoWriMo any time between October 1 and November 25.

You can proclaim your participation as a NaNoWriMo'er by buying t-shirts and more or by downloading an official NaNoWriMo icon.

Will NaNoWriMo make you into a published author? It's possible. Since its inception, several folks have sold their books. At the very least, you will learn the discipline of writing.

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